From The Desk Of Bird Of Youth’s Beth Wawerna: The Wrens’ Charles Bissell On Steve Koester and The Magnets

Bird Of Youth has no business being this good. Really. If writing and recording a really beautiful album was as easy as Beth Wawerna and her crew made it look, wouldn’t everyone do it? That’s sort of the story here. For most of her decade in New York, Wawerna was, in the words of her pal Timothy Bracy, “the consummate green-room insider.” Her background in journalism and her unerring taste had led to a number of indie-rock acquaintances who eventually became friends. It sounds like a pretty good time, hanging out in Brooklyn with the Mendoza Line’s Bracy and Pete Hoffman, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Carl Newman, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and others. But it turned out Wawerna had a secret stash of her own songs, which she’d worked on and demo’d and never, ever let anyone hear. Eventually, she decided it was time to set those songs free. Her pals not only liked them, they helped her form a crack band—guitarist par excellence Clint Newman, drummer Ray Ketchem, bassist Johnny North, keyboardist Eli Thomas and accordion player Elizabeth Bracy Nelson—and recorded them. Sheff and Phil Palazzolo (New Pornographers, Ted Leo) produced. Bissell contributed a terrific guitar lead on one song. Caws sang. Members of Okkervil River and the National played. The finished album, Defender, was released in May, just in time to give your summer a worthy soundtrack. Wawerna and Clint Newman will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, and once a day, Wawerna is having one of her famous friends guest blog. Read our brand new Q&A with her.

Charles Bissell is the singer/guitarist of the Wrens.

Bissell: My name is Charles, my current band—if you’re reading this after 1989 and before my unnoticed “creative differences” departure pending 2012—is the Wrens. We had a couple records and an EP in the ‘90s, another album in ’03, and since then have been walking a line between ridiculous careerist ambition and an enjoyable (read: real) life (babies, jobs, making homes).

It was super sweet of Beth Of Youth to ask me to write something for, what I’m sure will be her magisterial guest editorship at MAGNET, she also being a fine writer/music writer. But as I type this, a typical 10 days past deadline … I got nothing. No ideas, no time, nothing.

When suddenly … weeks-old NYT Book Review to the rescue! Reading a write-up of Harold Bloom’s new book, The Anatomy Of Influence, got me thinking about his whole neck of the literary woods: influence. In his case, he’s talking poetic influence, as in how “strong” poets like Wallace Stevens successfully struggle to hide their debt to and break free from their precursors. In Stevens’ case, Walt Whitman. Ditto John Ashbery. I think I got that right, although I’m not bookly enough to see it, and none of the three to me finishes up sounding like the other. (Bloom would probably never tie Allen Ginsberg to Whitman—though I would—or even mention his name if he lived an additional 120 years. Except for Howl, I would also probably tie Ginsberg to a railroad track. Kidding, spare MAGNET your hate couplets.)

In my case, I’m more thinking how influence works in the less dissertated and curriculized arts like indie rock. (I’d like credit for making both those words up, please).

As an aside and in order to pad my assignment, I haven’t read Bloom’s Anatomy, but I did read his Anxiety Of Influence, the book that sorta started it all for him lit-theory-wise, some 10 years ago when I was getting into all things seriously poesy. Poesy. Poetry. Lyric (singular). Prosody. Trochee. Why do all the words associated with poetry fucking suck? They certainly don’t make it easy to keep one’s balls about one while checking Dickinson, Olson or Moore outta one’s local library, do one? They. Do they.

Anxiety Of Influence is ironically good because you finish it sorta bamboozled by his own struggle with precursors. In his case, he really really wants to write like Shelley, etc., so his lit crit is written like older-school poetry: tons of inference, lots of assumed mutual reading, loads of other stuff. I pretty much love-hated it, but now, the NYT review made me realize that that really was his goal specifically and deliberately, so I’m gonna check out this new one, which is supposed to be written a bit more written for the lay folk.

Anyway, I hope you’re suitably impressed by my worldly and highbrow library habits, Beth. Here’s one way how influence plays out in a weak poet like me …

We (the Wrens) finally—”finally” for a million dumb reasons—started recording a new album last July. That same weekend, July 17, 2010, exactly, I started writing and demoing songs for the album in a damn hurry to catch up with Kevin and Greg, our two other songwriting band geeks.

Not having too many songs in reserve going into recording, feeling some pressure to “produce” after such a long hiatus and some lack of nerve whether I’d even be able to, etc., I was a little bit anxious waiting for anything muse-worthy.

So, in order to just get something/anything going (hi, Todd), I took one of my favorite songs—“It’s The Stacks,” from my friend Steve Koester’s 2001 album Oh! Turpentine—and one of my favorite songwriting techniques—theft; I mean “Bloom’s theory of poets struggling to overcome a strong precursor poet”—and put the two into the same Lincoln Tunnel Motel room, with unlimited wet bar and no questions asked, to see what would come of it.

Ok, I think I just disappeared up my own analogy. Essentially, I took part of Steve’s song and wrote my own new one around that. And really, using existing music as a jumping-off point—either as a way to face off against the blank page or just as a way of working around one’s own default vocabulary and clichéd phrases—is pretty standard stuff. Just Google “variations on a theme by” to see how often that yielded fruit in Euro. orchestral music.

Specifically in my case, working in the same key as “Stacks” (D Major), I took the three-note pickup (F#, G and A) of Steve’s chorus as the first three notes of my song, my first verse.

And then I did that six more times.

Meaning that now seven out of the 14 or so songs of mine under construction for tentative inclusion on our next record start with the same three-note phrase of Koester’s. So what began as a trick to get me started writing one new song has, after the better part of a year, turned into an almost conceptual game of seeing if I can write yet one more starting with the same notes, same key and still come out different and hopefully valid. And it’s ended up accounting for half my planned output for the album. So I’ve been calling these songs the Koester Variations.

Funny part is, I haven’t heard Steve’s song in the longest time until today, writing this. And I remembered it wrong; his is in the key of G. Well, that’s how influence works per Bloom; he’d call it a “misreading,” I think.

Anyhow, here’s Koester’s original, in all its glory (the three notes in question occur in the pickup to each chorus on the title words of “It’s the stacks.” First happens at 2:33):

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I love that he makes you wait a good minute-and-a-half of Tibetan bowl feedback loops (have it from the source that that’s what that is) to start the song. After my own heart. I love the 100 percent dry up-front vocal. Love the lyrics (“a show about the atomic bomb”). Love the chorus guitars. Masterful.

And here’s a sampling of a few of my new songs/demos using his three-note chorus pickup as my verse (the first three notes you hear):

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This one starts with the same intervals in the scale but now reversed:

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Sadly, none of mine are as good, at least as they stand now. Somewhere, someone influenced by Bloom is ironically laughing his askesis off.

This is probably a good time to recommend checking out the Koester Oh! Turpentine record and Steve’s current project, Two Dark Birds, who have a new album they’re mastering.

Almost forgot, I also namedrop Two Dark Birds in another new song, “Crescent,” although here meaning two actual dark birds and not the band per se. Still, clearly I have a problem or possibly owe Steve a tiny deal of money.

Also, almost forgot, my Variations On A Theme By Koester all started with the only other post-Meadowlands song I wrote in a hurry, “Brand New Apartment,” this one as a gift for two friends’ wedding. Cheap of me, in more than one way now.

****

It’s funny where influences can come from: sometimes the seemingly smallest things, sometimes the people you barely know, sometimes from places that seem tangential or even distracting to the main goals at the time. Sometimes the influences take years to emerge.

On a couple of our new songs (yes, our band is really recording), I’ve done some actual believe-it-or-not guitar solos. I’m of a mixed mind about this sort of thing, because on one hand, I do listen to way more jazz than indie rock, I am a huge guitar geek, was a jazz major and studied with people so mind-bendingly accomplished that it might lead you to think I should be a whole lot better than I am. Which I should.

On the other hand, music/band-wise, we’re clearly—well, maybe not so clearly anymore—out of a punk/DIY aesthetic where to even use the words “guitar” and “solo” on the same day would be to risk death by ‘90s wallet chain and excommunication from “the scene.” OK, there was no scene or at least not one that we were part of, but still, I certainly felt that way. I went through a good decade or two of hating guitar solos.

Lately, I’ve become less rigid about the solo-free zone on records for a bunch of reasons, chiefly that I’m old enough I no longer give a flying Funk #49.

But with my inner Hendrix now unleashed (Dan Hendrix, plumbing contractor, guitar enthusiast) and as far as solo influences go, one of those precursors that I have lately found myself thinking back to, worrying about measuring up to and just humming to myself a lot, is the solo to a song called “Physical Kind Of Man.” It’s by a band called the Magnets, who were in the same extended friend-circle as the first post-high school bands I played with. Like any pre-Internet scene separated by geography and now time (the Atlantic City corner of South Jersey in the mid-‘80s), there were dozens of great bands and individual musicians who never got the attention they deserved or that they’d almost default to now via our modern bloggy lives online.

The Magnets were Eric Madison and Roger Gros, both of whom I met a handful of times, enough to talk to and geek out with a bit, but didn’t really know. They augmented their two-person lineup with other folks over the years, including Doug Fottrell, the singer/keyboardist of my own first band, Fallout, who later played with Eric when Eric went country ‘n’ western.

I’m indebted to Doug for the Magnets’ mp3 below since my own copy of the seven-inch has been lost for a good 20 years.

Sorta relatedly, I’m also more in debt to Doug ‘cause he was always running the four-track in our band back then, constantly recording our new songs, total DIY before that was a catchphrase. And looking back, a lot of that had a large effect on moving me out of my ‘80s guitar ghetto and toward thinking and working on making whole records and making them myself/ourselves. There’s influence for you. Thanks, Doug.

Hearing the song again after all these years, I no longer hear it as the solo-obsessed narrow-minded guitar player I was back then, but as the older, more mature, narrow-minded songwriter I’ve become.

Lyrically, I’d forgotten how far Eric takes the extended airplane flight metaphor. It still sounds cool to me, although admittedly, I can’t hear it objectively. Probably hard to believe, but I love the reggae/ska feel to the verses but, again, can’t hear that objectively either. Half the bands in the South Jersey of my early ‘80s youth sounded that way. (See the Redtones. And good luck finding those recordings.)

I love how the verse and chorus/intro/solo chord progressions are just different enough to keep it from sounding repetitive: Dm | C | Bb | A for the one, Dm | Am | Gm | A for the other (with Am a 2/3 substitute for C and Gm a 2/3 sub for Bb).

I love how the solo comes in; not just a rise with that intro guitar melody, but with an extra measure thrown in (at 2:10), and raising the whole song up a half-step to Ebm. The half-step key change is a move that can go either way. Done right, it’s early Van Halen where lots of the solos are in a different key than the rest of the song they’re in, giving the whole section a cool lift (having a young, inspired Edward playing them didn’t hold the band back any either). Done wrong, it’s Barry Manilow at his Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-….-looks-like-we-maaaaade-it worst.

I love how Eric folds the three-note up/down/up phrase at 2:24 over the A major chord (which isn’t in the key of Dm), a second later at 2:25.

I love the bass part.

I love the two hollers during the solo. Where in a lot of cases, that would be added after the fact and sound contrived, I think—or like to think—that Eric yelled them while actually tracking the solo and further, that he even tracked the solo while tracking the basic song as a whole. As opposed to 99.whatever percent of solos that are overdubbed, often painstakingly, often months later.

Having noticed these things in a song I thought of mostly for the guitar solo for a long time, I intend to try each of these things in songs of my own in the coming months. And that’s influence again for you—not really so much about copying what’s never been said in an art form before. More about adding to one’s vocabulary, things you knew but wouldn’t have thought to say.

Eric passed away in the mid-‘90s, which I only found out years later. Hearing this again in that context, it can be a sad reminder how our lives intersect, then maybe don’t for long periods of time, maybe for good. And yet it’s nothing but cool that we can still have an impact, on each other, on people we barely know, even years after the fact. That’s real influence for you.

So, without more needless ado, from southern New Jersey, from 1980, 31 years overdue most of you, what I imagine to be a sort of moderny Internet debut for the Magnets’ “Physical Kind of Man.” Take it away, Eric …

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7 Comments

  1. tom
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    So you had time to write all that but you can’t get an album out in 10 years?

  2. Bill
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    tom’s just saying what we’re all thinking! i don’t even have time to read all of this! but i do have time to comment.

    ps. “Oh! Turpentine” is a phenomenal record!

  3. Chris Standish
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    More hollers over solos. Physical Kind of man sounds like an old Any Trouble song. I like it!

    I’ll say this follow up before someone else does, but I don’t men it this way: More hollers over solos is the new more cowbell.

  4. Posted July 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Koester rocks.

  5. thermos
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Great article, but these 10 seconds clips of your demos are such a tease Charles. Give us more!

  6. dcfox
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    wut tom, Bill & thermos sed.
    i did enjoy t. article tho.
    it was, uh, influential?

  7. bkingros
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    the Magnets were the bomb – before the bomb was “a thing”. Luv you Eric (& Roger). A little Elvis Costello influence there